The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.

The Secret Guests, by Benjamin Black****

It’s World War II, and the Blitz has begun. The Royals are torn, wanting to remain with their subjects and share their misery, but not wanting the risk the well beings of their daughters. It’s decided that the girls must be moved, but with the shipping lanes and skies fraught with peril, where can they go and be safe? Ah, a fine idea: they’ll send them to a cousin in Ireland.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As historical fiction goes, this is lightweight material, based on almost no historical event other than the war itself. However, as general fiction goes it’s terrific, immensely entertaining and droll as heck. I figure it’s 3.5 stars for historical fiction, 4.5 stars as general fiction; thus my 4 star rating.

Our protagonist is Garda Strafford-With-An-R, a marginally competent Irish detective who resembles Stan Laurel, tasked with the security the estate where the girls will be housed. Secondary characters are Celia Nashe, a British cop equivalent to a Secret Service agent, who is assigned to serve as personal security for the princesses; an arrogant, sleazy ambassador named Laschelles; and Strafford’s boss Hegarty, who resembles Oliver Hardy. We also have clueless but entitled Sir William, the girls’ host; two bored princesses that get up to things when nobody’s looking; some household servants that know more than they are supposed to; and a few local people that also know too much.

The fact is that I’m entirely burned out on World War II fiction, and that fact nearly prevents me from requesting this galley. But the spin—Ireland, which remained neutral and flirted with taking the side of Germany, what with its enmity toward the British—proves irresistible. The greatest surprise is how much wit is employed and how fast the story moves. I have never read Black’s work before, and this guy is hilarious. He shifts the point of view often, always from the third person omniscient but varying several times within a single chapter, so we get snippets of the person that’s bored, the person that’s nosy, the person that’s confused and so forth. The word smithery is so original and clever that I cannot put my highlighter down. Highlighting is pointless when I highlight close to half of the text, but I can’t help myself. And best of all, the cliched ending that I think I can see a mile away isn’t happening.

Those of us in the States have a three day weekend right around the corner, and the weather will be too miserable to want to go anywhere. This novel might be just the ticket. If you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation soon, this would also be a fine beach read. But the humor will be a terrific pick-me-up for those stranded indoors with a case of the grumps. I recommend this book to you, and I would read this author’s work again in a heartbeat.

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Best Military History of 2019: Spearhead, by Adam Makos

Honorable mention:

Four Hours of Fury, by James M. Fenelon**

I love good military history, and so when I saw this title I requested and received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It’s for sale now, but I can’t recommend it to you.

One of the first things I do when I read a new author in this genre is to check notes and sources.  A first rate military historian will have multiple sources for each fact cited, and a reasonably good one will have a variety of sources, primary sources being most desirable.

Fenelon doesn’t do this. Much of his information hangs on a single source, and often these are not well integrated. This is the first time I have seen military history published by a major house, that uses Wikipedia as a source. All of the history teachers I know send their students back to do a rewrite if they hinge their citations on Wiki, and if teenagers aren’t allowed to do it, I cannot think why Scribner permitted it.

What drew me to the book is the paratroopers. There seems to be a spate of these coming out right now, and I find it fascinating subject material. There’s also a trend, of which this book is also an example, of embracing the brave German troops against whom American forces fought, and not unnecessarily, either. I could get behind this trend more easily were it more universal, but somehow U.S. historians are quick to recognize the shared humanity of former enemies that are Caucasian, and others, not so much. If I could see one, just ONE WWII history that recounts kind of brave actions on the part of the Japanese during this conflict, I would be a good deal less cranky.

Be that as it may, this book is inadequately researched and inadequately documented. It’s not professionally rendered, so if you want to read it, do so critically and evaluate as you read. Get it free or cheaply; don’t pay full price.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah*****

You could say I am late to the party, and you would be right. I had a chance to read a galley, but I read the synopsis and then scrolled past it. More World War II fiction? Ho hum. But the most well-worn subject matter can be made brand new in the most capable hands, and Hannah has done that. I thank the Goodreads friends that insisted I should read this book, and Seattle Bibliocommons for providing me with a copy. 

Our two protagonists are French sisters whose mother has died. Vianne, the elder sister, marries and leaves; Isabelle is sent to one boarding school after another by her grieving papa, who has nothing to give his daughters emotionally. The Nazi threat is far away and of little concern to the people of Paris—until they come closer, and then they’re here.

The Nazis sweep through Papa’s bookstore. They trash the shelves and confiscate all of his Marx, all of his Trotsky. They say these are terrorist materials. And then—they put him on their payroll.

Isabelle leaves yet another boarding school and goes home to her Papa, determined to remain at home. She receives a cold and unwelcoming return; then the Germans pierce the Maginot Line, once believed to be impenetrable, and Paris is no longer safe. Papa sends a bitter Isabelle to live with her sister, but she is traveling in the car of neighbors, and they are forced to abandon their vehicle. Isabelle is on her own.

Vianne, meanwhile, is tending to hearth and home. For years she miscarried one baby after another, late miscarriages at that, and the love her sister might have expected has instead turned to grief for the tiny people buried in a family plot in Vianne’s yard. Her husband has been conscripted, and she is alone with the one child she was able to bear. Vianne is not a risk taker, because she has too much to lose. Everything she does is in the interest of her daughter, Sophie, and her husband. Isabelle arrives and almost immediately begins making waves, behaving provocatively toward the occupying German forces, and Vianne is horrified. Isabelle has to go.

Over the course of the story both sisters are developed in a way that is so natural, so believable that I can sometimes predict what they will do, not because the writing is formulaic—it isn’t—but because I feel I know them so well now. I want to speak to the characters directly, so visceral is my reaction to them. Isabelle, who at the outset is reactive and reckless, joins the Resistance and becomes a disciplined patriot, code-named “The Nightingale”. She is still courageous, but she learns to weigh her actions against the benefits and risks to her cause. Vianne, who at the outset is conservative, becomes more willing to take risks on behalf of the Jewish children in her small community, children that are likely to either starve or be killed if they are not smuggled into safe homes.  All along, I am murmuring advice to them: “Do it! Do it!” and “Don’t you dare.”

A particularly interesting and unexpected development is the change in Papa; the drunken, abusive, uncaring lout has a side that nobody suspects, and he becomes a flawed yet heroic side character.

Once I realized that Hannah is a force in today’s literary world, I read the galley of her next novel, The Great Alone (reviewed by me also.) It was good, but nothing close to what this story is, and so I am glad I read them in this order, saving the better story as a tasty dessert.  If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now. Trust me.

The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

Sometimes I feel sorry for writers that hit it big the first time they publish a novel, because then the expectations are raised for everything they write thereafter, and so I wondered whether Loigman, the author of A Two Family House, would be able to match the standard she has set for herself. I needn’t have worried, because if anything, The Wartime Sisters is even more absorbing. I was invited to read and review, and my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This excellent novel will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The setting is an armory not far from where the author grew up, one that was an important manufacturing site during World War II. The characters are what drive the story, but Loigman’s intimate understanding of the period’s social mores and the economic impact the war had on women on the home front make it far more resonant. Rather than rely on pop-cultural references to set the tone, she conveys unmistakably what American women were expected to do—and to never do–in this unusual yet unliberated time period.

Ruth and Millie are sisters, and yet in some ways they don’t really know each other. Each has built up a personal narrative full of grievances and assumptions about the other over the course of their lives; they are estranged, with Millie back home in Brooklyn and Ruth in Springfield, Massachusetts. Both are married, and both of their husbands have decided to enlist, but otherwise their circumstances are vastly different. Ruth has married well, but when Millie’s husband Lenny is gone and their parents are dead, she has no one to turn to. She has a small child to consider, and during this time period it was unusual for a mother to leave a young child in the care of others. Men worked; women stayed home. And so although she dreads doing it, Millie writes to her older sister Ruth; Ruth doesn’t want to take Millie in, but she does.

Both sisters carry a lot of guilt, and each is holding onto a terrible secret.

The story alternates time periods and points of view, and the reader will want to pay close attention to the chapter headings, which tell us not only which woman’s perspective is featured, but also what year it is. At the outset we have the present time alternating with their childhoods, and gradually the two time periods are brought together.

 In addition, we see the viewpoints of two other women that are introduced later in the story. One is Lillian, the wife of a commanding officer; she befriends Ruth and later, Millie. The second is Arietta, the cook that feeds the armory personnel and also sings for them. Although these women’s backgrounds are provided as separate narratives, their main role is to provide the reader with an objective view of Ruth and Millie.

I generally have several books going at a time, but I paused my other reading for this one, because I felt a personal obligation to Ruth and to Millie. Family is family, and while I read this story, they were my sisters. You can’t just walk away.

Loigman joins women’s fiction and World War II historical fiction masterfully, and if this work reminds me of any other writer, it would be the great Marge Piercy. This book is highly recommended to those that cherish excellent writing.

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

Lola’s House, by M. Evelina Galang***-****

LolasHouseDuring World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced over 400,000 women into sexual slavery; though the Korean comfort women have been recognized for a long time, the survivors in the Philippines lived with the trauma and appalling social stigmatization for decades, unheard. Recently 173 of them, now very elderly, filed suit against the Japanese government. This collection includes interviews with 16 Filipina women whose lives were ruined by this atrocity. Thanks go to Net Galley and Northwestern University Press for the DRC, which I received early and free in exchange for this honest review. The collection is for sale now.

This is a rough read, hard to push through for the very thing that makes it valuable: it tells the women’s experiences in their own words. And they want to be heard. For decades, nobody, including their own families, has been willing to listen to them. After experiencing cruel, sadistic torture, they were greeted, upon the army’s departure, as social pariahs. Their countrymen let them know that nobody wants anything to do with a woman that’s been touched, penetrated, harmed in many unspeakable ways by the Japanese. They were called “Japanese leftovers.” Thus, their nightmare at the hands of the enemy was worsened by a subsequent nightmare at the hands of those they thought would console them.

And so as you can imagine, it’s not an enjoyable book. It isn’t intended to be.

Galang is also Filipina, and she weaves her own story in with that of her subjects. I would have preferred that she restrict herself to the topic; whereas including her own memoir may be cathartic, it also slows the pace. There are also snippets of untranslated Tagalog, and although this may resonate for those that are bilingual, context didn’t make the passages clear much of the time, and so I was left with the choice to either run to my desktop, type in the passages, translate them and return to the text, or just skip them and read on. It didn’t take me long to decide on the latter.

So as a general read for the lover of history, I can’t recommend this book, but for the researcher, it’s a gold mine. There is information here that you won’t find anywhere else. There are primary documents end to end here. I can imagine any number of thesis topics for which this work would be pivotal.

For the researcher, this is a four star read.